Pre Code Confidential #23: Marlene Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS (Paramount 1932)


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Director Josef von Sternberg and his marvelous muse Marlene Dietrich  teamed for their fifth film together with BLONDE VENUS, a deliciously decadent soap opera that’s a whole lot of fun for Pre-Code lovers. Sternberg indulges his Marlene fetish by exploring both sides of her personality, as both Madonna and whore, and Dietrich plays it to the hilt in a film that no censor would dare let pass just a scant two years later.

How’s this for an opening: a group of schoolboys hiking through the Black Forest stumble upon a bevy of naked stage chanteuses taking a swim! The girls scream and try to hide, and beautiful Helen (Marlene) tries to shoo them away. Ned Faraday refuses until Helen agrees to meet him later. Flash forward to a scene of Helen and Ned now married with a young son named Johnny. Ned, a chemist by trade, has been poisoned by…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #34: The Story of Louis Pasteur (dir by William Dieterle)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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OH MY GOD, LOUIS PASTEUR WAS THE DEVIL!

Okay, maybe not but that’s certainly the impression that you might get from looking at the one sheet for the 1936 film, The Story of Louis Pasteur.  Seriously, Louis looks quite sinister!

As the movie starts, that’s certainly the view of the 19th century French medical establishment.  A doctor has been murdered by a grieving husband and it’s believed that the murder was inspired by one of Pasteur’s incendiary flyers.  What does the flyer demand?  That doctors should wash their hands and sterilize their instruments before operating.

That’s right!  Washing your hands before plunging them into a human body was once considered to be a controversial notion.  Pasteur is put on trial, accused of inciting violence with his quackery.  Even though Pasteur is acquitted, he finds himself a pariah.  The autocratic and close-minded Dr. Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber) declares Pasteur to be guilty of great quackery and even the ducks are offended.  That’s how hated Pasteur has become.

But, of course, we the audience know that Pasteur is not a quack.  Not only do we know that he is responsible for discovering the process of pasteurization but he’s also apparently important enough to have his own 1930s Warner Bros. biopic.  And he’s played by Paul Muni, who made a career out of playing great men in 1930s biopics.

The film follows Pasteur as he discovers cures for anthrax and rabies.  Along the way, he yells at a lot of people and he gives a lot of speeches.  This film might as well have been called The Paul Muni Show and … well, his performance is okay.  It’s not great.  If you’ve seen the very first version of Scarface, you know that Paul Muni was capable of giving a far better performance than he gives here.  But then again, as written, all Louis does is bellow against everyone who disagrees with him.  (And cure rabies, we shouldn’t overlook that.)

The Story of Louis Pasteur is one of those old-fashioned biopics that feels a bit creaky and stiff today.  As I watched it, I kept thinking that it felt like something you might across on PBS at three in the morning.  However, 1936 audiences disagreed with me.  The Story of Louis Pasteur did quite well at the box office and was nominated for best picture, though it lost to another biopic, The Great Ziegfeld.

Cleaning Out The DVR #33: Heaven Can Wait (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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The 1943 film Heaven Can Wait opens with a 70 year-old man named Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) stepping into an opulent drawing room and having a conversation with a refined but menacing man known as His Excellency (Laird Cregar).  From their conversation, it quickly becomes obvious that Henry has recently died and His Excellency is in charge of Hell.  Most people who come to see His Excellency do so because they want to argue that they do not belong in Hell and they usually end up falling through a convenient trap door.  However, Henry is there to argue that, after living an enjoyable but dissolute life, he belongs in Hell.

Henry tells the story of his life.  He tells how he was born into great wealth and influenced by his down-to-Earth grandfather (Charles Coburn).  As a young man, he spent most of his time chasing after showgirls bur eventually, he met the beautiful and kind-hearted Martha (Gene Tierney).  He immediately fell in love with Martha but, unfortunately for him, she was engaged to his cousin (Allyn Joslyn).  Henry, however, used his considerable charm to convince her to elope with him.

(It helps, of course, that Henry’s cousin was totally and completely obnoxious, in the way that rival suitors often are in films like this.)

And, for 25 years, Henry was happy with Martha.  It took him a while to settle down and, at one point, Martha even left him as a result of his affairs.  However, they always got back together and Henry eventually did settle down, even going so far as to prevent his son from running off with a showgirl of his own.  It was only after Martha herself died that Henry, who always felt he didn’t deserve her love, returned to his old ways.

And, Henry argues, it’s because he was unworthy of his wife that he deserves to spend an eternity in Hell.  Does His Excellency agree?

Well, it would certainly be a depressing movie if he did.

One of the great things about TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar is that it gave me a chance to discover several films from director Ernst Lubitsch, films like The Smiling Lieutenant, The Love Parade, Ninotchka, and Heaven Can Wait.  Of those four Lubitsch films, Heaven Can Wait is probably the least substantial but it’s still an undeniably entertaining and nicely romantic film.  This is one of those films that you watch because the sets look wonderful, the costumes are to die for, and the performers are all pleasant to watch.  It’s pure entertainment, a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word.

In fact, tt was such a crowd-pleaser that it was nominated for best picture of the year.  However, it lost to the ultimate crowd-pleaser, Casablanca.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sergeant York (dir by Howard Hawks)


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The 1941 film Sergeant York was the American Sniper of its day.  A biopic of Alvin York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, Sergeant York was not only a huge box office hit but it was a film that celebrated American patriotism in the type of unabashed fashion that you would never see in a film made today.  Though Sergeant York went into production at a time when the United States was officially pursuing a policy of international neutrality, it was released shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, whether intentionally or not, Sergeant York served as a strong recruiting tool.  According to Wikipedia (and we all know that Wikipedia is never wrong), there were reports of young men going straight from the movie to the nearest military recruitment office.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours (and running at least 40 minutes too long), Sergeant York is two films in one.  The second half of the film deals with the military career of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a plain-spoken and honest Tennessee farmer who, because of his strong religious beliefs, unsuccessfully attempts to register as a conscientious objector.  Forced into the Army, York is, at first, dismissed as a simple-minded hillbilly.  (His fellow soldiers are amused to discover that York doesn’t know what a subway is.)  However, to the shock of his commanding officers, he proves himself to be an expert marksman.  As he explains it, being from the country means that he’s been shooting a rifle his entire life.

On the basis of his skills as a marksman, York is given a promotion but he still says that he refuses to kill.  It’s not until his superior officer reminds him of the sacrifices that past Americans have made that York starts to reconsider his position.  Then, a gust of wind opens York’s bible to a verse about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and York realizes that he can go to war and, if need be, he can kill.

And it’s a good thing that he can!  Because World War I is heating up and York may be the only guy around with the strength and confidence to single-handedly defeat and capture over 170 German soldiers.

The army section of Sergeant York is predictable but well-done.  As you’d expect from a film directed by Howard Hawks, a lot of emphasis is put on how the soldiers work together.  York is portrayed not as being super human but instead as just an honest man who is exceptionally good at his job.  There’s nothing surprising about the second half of Sergeant York but Hawks keeps the action moving and Cooper gives a good performance.

To be honest, I preferred the first half of the film, which examined York’s life before he joined the Army.  When we first meet Alvin York, he drinks too much, he fights too much, and he’s totally irresponsible.  It’s not until he falls in love with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) that York starts to change his ways.  The scenes of York in the backwoods of Tennessee had a lively feel to them and it was enjoyable to see Cooper play a somewhat disreputable character.  Cooper seemed to be having fun playing a ne’er-do-well and, in the scenes before York finds God, his bad behavior was a lot of fun to watch.

Considering its success at the box office, it’s not surprising that Sergeant York was nominated for best picture of the year.  While Gary Cooper won the Oscar for best actor, the award for Best Picture went to How Green Was My Valley.

Happy Birthday Robert Mitchum: OUT OF THE PAST (RKO 1947)


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One of my favorite actors, the laconic, iconic Robert Mitchum was born August 6, 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Rugged Robert had a wandering spirit, riding the rails in the days of the Depression, and even did time on a Georgia chain gang. Mitchum eventually ended up in California , and was bitten by the acting bug. After small roles in Laurel & Hardy comedies and Hopalong Cassidy oaters, Mitchum got noticed in a series of B-Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey. His big break came as a tough sergeant in 1945’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE, which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But the role that made him a star was world-weary private eye Jeff Bailey in the film noir classic OUT OF THE PAST.

We meet Bailey running a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California (an homage to Mitchum’s hometown, perhaps?) He has a mute…

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